For years my wife and I had talked about travelling across Europe in a camper van. Images conjured up the smell of a wood stocked fire being readied for some fine cuts, the sun setting over the Mediterranean and a chilled glass of Sancerre in hand. Ah yes … We had even considered me taking a 6 month sabattical, renting out our house in London and setting off in search of sun sea and adventure in a camper van. Frankly not too dissimilar to what most people caught up in the work grind of meetings, schedules and tight deadlines dream about – perhaps minus the camper van.
Every time we would pass a camper van on the road we would launch into a furious debate; too big, too small, does it have a toilet, too posh. Eventually we decided to take the plunge and head up to a caravan and camping show at the NEC in Birmingham. Immediately we were greeted by an overwhelming array of different models ranging from matress stuffed into the back of a minivan and not much else, to a full on house on wheels.
But what took us by suprise was the demographic of the average buyer at the show. These were people who clearly had lots of time on their hands and no doubt a healthy pension pot. They had reached an age where a few months on the road could drift into a few more. In other words they did not need to pack a furious race around Spain or wherever into a 2 week break. We left feeling somewhat disheartened and didn’t discuss it much more.
But the idea refused to die and at a loose end wondering what to do in the summer of 2016, we took the plunge and decided to hire a camper van and drive across Italy. Some research brought up a company in Nice and I duly sent off the deposit – now we were well and truly committed.
When I mentioned it to people at work the usual response was oh, the kids will love it. When I responded that our kids had all graduated the look was one of puzzlement. Looking back I understand why. There are various sub-groups of people who do this sort of thing. For young parents and their children it’s brilliant allowing them to enjoy the freedom and mix with different cultures. Then there are the young adults who remember camping from their earlier youth and are reliving that time but through an alcohol fuelled haze among other substances. Then there are the grand parents reliving old memories and giving their hassled children a break from their kids.
Finally there was us. Having grown up in South Africa we loved the outdoors and the freedom that going on camping trips gave us. For Corinne it was about trundling to Hermanus from Cape Town with her dad towing his home made flat pack caravan and watching amusement turn to respect as he opened it out into a fully fledged home on wheels. But with friends flying off to Croatia, Tuscanny and Greece staying in comfortable accommodation, how would our holiday compare with the tasks of finding a place for the night, slopping out chemical waste, worrying if we had enough food for dinner etc.
Day one 13/08/16 Nice
Setting out on our Italian camper van holiday we flew from Gatwick to Heathrow arriving in Nice at midday. However it was not a great start as Corinne had forgotten the critical map showing the campsite locations on which she had made numerous notes in her tight neat handwriting. The taxi driver wouldn’t bring us to the camper van hire company unless we paid 30 euros for a 10 minute ride and made it clear he was not a ‘chien’ when I showed my irritation.
The hire company was closed for lunch when we arrived (12:00 – 15:00) meaning we had an hour to kill. I decided to ignore the taxi driver’s snigger and we decided to park ourselves in a pizzeria across the road. Regrettably they could not serve us lunch as it was 2pm and they too were closing. Good news however was that we chose a campsite near Genoa from our Italian camping guide book and negotiated our first booking. We will be staying at La Vesima. And in further good news Corinne found the missing map which was in fact part of the book contained in the back section.
At 3pm prompt the owner of the hire company returned, greeted us and proceeded to peremptorily explain the workings of what would be our home for the next 2 weeks. Our camper van is a Fiat Ducato Multijet 130 Professional. In a whirlwind tour we were taught about connecting external 230v power. This would mean that fridge, lighting and internal plugs could all be used as well as hot water for the kitchen and shower. Then we were shown how to deal with an absence of an external power source. This is where the gas bottles stored in the rear came into their own powering the fridge and hot water. The van also had its own battery to power all the internal lighting and fridge in the absence of external power. The electrical control panel managing all of this was quite spaceship like in its appearance with lots of coloured lights implying different problems, enough to satisfy any boyhood mechanical desires. I took great delight in explaining it all to Corinne and watching her look of bewilderment. This is where the male brain shows its superiority and why as a species we were not devoured by animals in earlier times.
Then no doubt thinking back to his 3 hour lunch the owner explained the workings of the toilet, how it was important to have this part closed while driving to avoid spillage and that part open to spill the contents into the receptacle. Then how to remove the cassette and dispose of the contents only into a suitable chemical toilet waste at a campsite. Finally swishing it out with water, putting new chemicals in and replacing it in the correct way back into the vehicle.
Surveying the flimsiness of the contraption and imagining being inadvertently showered by its contents (she has IBS – say no more), I made a mental note to dispose of any of my personal waste at service stations and hoped she would do the same. Finally there was the process of topping up the water reservoir for shower, taps and toilet and the releasing of ‘grey’ water. He then hauled out two ramp like structures that were designed to fit under the wheels of the vehicle. This he explained would level the van. As we were to discover later, getting the level right was essential if we were to avoid rolling into each other as we slept, the correct functioning of the toilet etc. Having absorbed this as best I could I decided we needed to make some progress as by this time it was past 4pm. Carefully nosing the van into the afternoon traffic we headed out onto the A8 and once past Monaco were quickly into Italy and heading towards Genoa.
We passed through Arenzano a nice little beach town on the way to la Vesima and decided to explore it on the way back. However we soon found that the coastal road to La Vesima was closed and I took what I thought was a diversion. Instead the road wound steeply up the mountainside getting narrower until eventually it petered out in someone’s drive way. This was my first opportunity to try out a 5 point turn and with Corinne watching my rear end, eventually we were on our way back down. Then coming around a steep corner we heard the parp of the local bus and ended up in a Mexican stand-off. Our van was pointed down half way around the bend with his bus pointed at us and no way to get past. Just as I began contemplating reversing up the mountain, the driver signalled that he would do the honours, a gesture I was glad to accept. I watched with respect as he expertly manoeuvred his bus 3 times bigger than ours down the mountain and the look of blind faith on the faces of his passengers – he is our bus driver, we must trust him.
13/08/16 La Vesima 207 km
Arriving at La Vesima we expertly parked our camper van next to a very professional Dutch rig and connected the external power. Being our first night camping we ate at the campsite’s pizzeria. Our site is right on the beach with only an expressway train track between us and the sea. We try to imagine that the sound of the train screaming past hourly is some strange Italian wind making it seem more romantic. Tomorrow we will go and explore Genoa.
The following day taking the SS1 we drove into Genoa and eventually found some illegal parking for our camper van just in the city centre. This is where we first felt the limitations of our vehicle as many parking areas had explicit signs – NO CAMPER VANS! We had wanted to wander through the Carruggi area – Genoa’s old city and within a few minutes we had lost ourselves in the tiny winding streets. Being a Sunday there were few shops open but that did not matter, in fact it enhanced the experience.
Feeling hungry we stepped into a tiny bakery which had a huge selection of different Foccacias. Corinne had her misgivings thinking of the London version often dry and bready. This was in a different league and we scoffed the lot on the way back to the van licking fingers greedily. Corinne then whipped up a beautiful Italian salad with plum tomatoes which she fed to me as we drove. Satisfied to some extent we wound our way out of the city and headed to our next objective – Vada. Special note; Belvedere Montaldo at Castelleto affords a spectacular panorama of the whole city, port and all but unfortunately we were not able to get there as time was short.
14/08/16 Vada 252 km Toscana
Vada had been described to us as a lovely beach area and with this recommendation being sufficient, we decided to give it a go. Having enjoyed a ver satisfactory first night camping in La Vesima, minus the express train, the campsite at Vada was on the opposite scale. It was nothing more than a converted sandy football pitch with zero facilities. On the plus side it was right on the beach which we went to explore. It was nice but not quite like the guidebook pictures suggested. That evening we were told there would be a fiesta. The Italians love their fiestas allowing the opportunity to dress up, gorge on food and wine and dance the night away.
We took a stroll to where it was all happening just off the pitch and after placing our order at a small kiosk, we were seated on the edge of the dance floor among several hundred other people. We wondered how they would find us when our food was ready. What we had not noticed was that a young child of no more than 12 had followed us to see where we were, made a mental note and like clockwork our young waiter ensured that each course was delivered and meticulously marked off the item on our order.
On the stage was a singer with a wide a wide array of technical wizzidary allowing her to replicate an entire orchestra. Soon a few couples joined the dance floor swirling their partners in a ball room embrace. Before long the floor was filled with couples doing complicated moves in perfect harmony of all ages. The music, warm romance filled night and sweet voice of the singer finally got to us and we returned to our camper van for a good nights sleep.
15/08/16 Riviera Degli Etruschi, Tarquinia, Toscana 205km
Leaving Vada we headed to the autostrade deciding that the Camper Van performed better on smooth roads at a constant 55 miles an hour on cruise control. The winding mountain roads while charming, were better suited to two wheels. We were charged 60 centimes at the toll booth and it became apparent why it was so little when the autostrade ran out after a few miles and the road surface deteriorated significantly. This is when we learned the value of packing things away very carefully. As we went over each bump or pothole various kitchenware items would crash around in the drawers and cupboards. Sounds eventually became familiar and without turning back we could tell – yep that’s the fridge door flinging open and the water flying out and hitting the floor with a thud. We hoped the caffettiera would make it one piece. We were aiming for Montalto do Castro not because we had done painstaking research on the place but simply because of its location 1/2 way to Rome.
Arriving at the Riviera Degli Etruschi on Spaggia beach, we decided that we needed to have a plan for this trip. Wandering down Italy’s western coastline aimlessly whilst satisfying the desire to jettison structure and routine, also had a certain hollowness. Placing the map of Italy before us on a carpet of pine needles we set to work. This showed up an interesting difference in the way Corinne and I worked together. While I wanted to outline an overall plan for the journey that could possibly take in Puglia or not, she wanted to dive into analysis and research. Vision versus detail – a good combination.
Eventually we agreed that Puglia was a step too far and that the turning point for our journey was to be Salerno. This was simply because we wanted to feel we had done the Amalfi ignoring the wisdom of people more experienced who counselled not to go there in the middle of August in a 6m vehicle. We shall see. That decided we now felt settled and could plan the rest of the journey. We headed to the beach just a short walk away and spent a few hours gazing out to sea while parents and young children played in the surf together. Memories.
That evening we wandered through the pine forest and found an open air pizzeria with a large dance floor and a DJ pouring out Italian eurotrash hip hop and rap. Not a great way to spend an evening but there were few choices. However after a short while the DJ took the mike and started to sing karaoke and we were stunned by his voice. Thoughts of Mario Lanza came to mind although if you were to ask me to sing any of his songs or remember a melody I would be hard pressed.
This was clearly a big night out in the area as one after another different people were called up to the stage only to overwhelm us with their professional voice. Duets were sung in perfect harmony and even a perfect rendition of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights was delivered in perfect pitch. The DJ came over after awhile encouraged by our enthusiastic applause (nobody else seemed to bother) and asked if we would like to sing some English songs. We politely declined.
We awoke the following morning to a cool breeze blowing through our canopy of pine trees which kept the heat at bay and to the sound of the dawn chorus. We took a lovely early morning stroll along the beach watching the fisherman setting up for their catch of the day. We talked about things that made us happy, people we miss who are no longer with us, the short breath of life and the importance of living it and the plight of the migrants crossing the Med for a new life. Neither of us were sure whether camping fitted into our life plan particularly as the chemical toilet needed to be ‘done’ (IBS issues) and the damp towels were starting to smell.
16/08/16 San Felice Cicero, Lazio 204 km
Having now settled the question of our plan we also agreed that spending several hours in the van driving down the autostrade was not meaningful nor life enhancing and therefore wanted to keep the mileage low. It seemed that 200 kms with faffing at our destination was enough for us and anyway, we seemed to be making good progress south. Having done some research we settled on the town of San Felice Cicero satisfying our mileage objective for the day and being just beyond Rome on our way to Naples.
Before setting out I decided to see if the table could be folded down making more interior space. Unfortunately as I manoeuvred it, one of the plastic hinges snapped with a loud crack and I was left holding the entire folding contraption in my two hands. After much cursing I laid it flat on the floor which was not a good idea as every time I went around a bend it would slide across the floor from side to side. It remained on our bed for the rest of the journey and right now the hinge has been super glued together and will hopefully be as good as new. But no joints on the table not for carving is the new mantra. Needless to say Corinne found the episode hilarious.
Arriving in San Felice, a small Italian sea side town we decided to do what other campers do and drive along the coast until we found a good spot and a nearby camper park. We came across a highly recommended one run by the charismatic Pasquale who recounted with fondness his years in Cambridge. Looking at him quizzically he hastened to add; he was waiting tables. We were warned online the facilities were ‘rustic’ and ‘natural’ and these they certainly were. Oh so you want a shower? Sure just go behind this see through plastic mesh you’ll find them there. And the toilets? Well one of the reviewers wrote thank god we had our own facilities in the van.
An accomplished cook apparently, Pasquale offered to make us dinner after we had barely arrived. Corinne looked at me sternly after he had left and said; you will decline won’t you! Of course my dear, I shall find a diplomatic way to say thanks but no thanks. These things in any event are best left to a man to handle.
Pasquale also kept all sorts of farmyard animals. This meant that the fly situation was an epidemic. Stepping outside our sealed environment they would descend from everywhere and swatting them in the heat became a pointless exercise.
Later on in the day Corinne wandered over to Pasquale’s kitchen where she was given a tour and tasting of the different ingredients he used as well as his herb garden. She returned to the camper van and promptly announced that Pasquale would be cooking dinner for us the following night. My diplomatic refusal of dinner was now superfluous and I put my fine words away to be used on another occassion.
At this stage we seemed to have reached a low point in our journey. Corinne is getting more and more irritated by the state of our interior – unusual for her to say the least. Sand in the shower, on the floor in our bed is getting too much. Squeezing past each other on the way to the ‘bedroom’ or ‘kitchen’ having just had a shower requires levels of familiarity and intimacy that only decades of being together brings. We have developed what we call the camper van shuffle and remarkably like the dancers in Vada, can anticipate each other’s moves thus minimising the need for communication.
Our table has again collapsed and one of the drawer pulls came off in my hand rendering that drawer useless. I had only completed 3 of the steps to switch the fridge from battery to gas after we stopped and all the food we bought at the Coop is ruined this morning. I took back my snigger at Corinne’s lack of comprehension on the workings of the electrics earlier in our journey. (Hence forth we are now a team. She calls out fridge – I say check, water – check, roof skylights, gas, toilet etc.) Finally my iPhone has been destroyed – mea culpa. In making a point I brought it down a little too hard on the table and all it now shows is a blue screen. Corinne says it’s a very unusual blue and quite beautiful.
That evening we took a short walk along the beach front to the festivo where one could buy cheap trashy shiny useless things or eat fatty foods. A tribute band to an Italian rock star I had never heard of belted out loud tuneless songs while people with children and prams milled about staring soullessly. We retired early to be awoken by a firework display that sounded like a World War II firefight. I think I drifted off again before being awoken by the grand finale.
To ease frustrated nerves we have decided to stay in San Felice for another day. The road is taking its toll on Corinne and understandably, being a water and sky girl, she needs to chill on the beach. We started with a long walk along the sea front having been awoken early by crowing cocks. At some point we decided to wander into one of the private beaches thinking we could pay to use their sun lounger and umbrella. After 30 minutes and feeling very chilled, a red faced man appeared and shouted at us in Italian. We held up our hands doing the usual helpless English shrug enlisting the help of the Italian couple next to us and feeling quite Brexited. Eventually another official arrived and made clear we were unwelcome – this beach was for residents. Fair enough we wandered back to the campsite collected our chair and umbrella and continued our chilled day on a public beach nearby.
Later on we took a little drive and bought a few provisions of which one item, a dustpan and brush brought Corinne considerable joy. She held it up triumphantly congratulating herself for her eagle eye having spotted it through the shop’s dusty window. But we were not buying a fly swatter! Hours of boredom while conscripted in the South African army to the Namibian/Angola border had meant that fly killing was one of my particular specialities. Finally we could clean out the sand and accumulated debris from the various campsites we had so far visited including quite a lot of pine needles from Tarquinia. This has been a turning point – we feel clean and Germanic.
A further turning point was the discovery of a little beach beside the harbour where we parked up, opened the big sliding door and sipped on a cold beer as we watched the boating activity. We had talked about doing this but until now not found the opportunity. Feeling in lighter mood, we headed back to the campsite to eat with Pasquale who had promised us a feast.
At 9:00 pm Pasquale ambled over to our camper van and announced dinner was ready. His kitchen and dining area had 4 rickety tables and much of the construction was bamboo giving it a real rustic feel. A variety of cats and dogs were constantly wandering in and out and being shooed away before the humans finally gave up. Outside he had a huge array of different herbs many of which he assured us we would sample in his cooking.
We were the only diners and the first course was already on the table. This consisted of melanzane cooked on a grill with sliced green peppers, olives and a bruschetta with figs picked from a tree near our camper van, grilled with his home made vinegar and a touch of cannelle (cinnamon). It was followed by calamari and prawns done simply with lemon juice and once again cooked on the grill. His final main course was Latttarini (small fish) fried with Rosemary infused sunflower oil.
A rather large and liberally tattooed lady wandered in and out of the kitchen puffing away and was introduced as Pasquale’s friend. She spoke no English but this did not hinder conversation as Pasquale translated pertinent points. Many things we did not quite understand resulted in whoops of laughter from our friend the tattooed lady and we regretted not being able to speak Italian. We drank liberal amounts of Pasquale’s white wine (made by him).
At one stage during the meal Pasquale’s wife joined paying us no attention and focused on eating her dinner. It was quite clear that there was tension between them. This was confirmed when I said to the wife; “bravo Pasqaule” complimenting his cooking. She muttered something in Italian under her breath. When I asked Pasquale to translate he responded that she had said; “bravo to me” in clear reference to her stamina in being married to Pasquale. We would have loved to have heard her side of the story.
The meal was finished off with a fruit salad the likes of which I had never tasted before. Containing a medley of different fruits it was embellished with Chedrina, a lemony herb and Verbena giving off a wonderful refreshing mint flavour. At the end of it all Pasquale produced a bottle of his own Grappa. We retired to bed feeling extremely satisfied and thoughts of an early departure the following day were placed on hold.
18/08/16 Vulcano Solfatara, Pozzuoili, Napoli, 142 km
We planned a short drive today to a campsite within a volcano just outside of Naples. This gave us a tranquil setting under shady eucalyptus trees and all the facilities we now wanted in any campsite; clean showers and toilets, swimming pool if the location is not close to the beach, easy walk into town etc. This place ticked all the boxes and arriving at our destination we were not to be disappointed. More of that later.
Our relationship with our home on wheels has started to transform. I no longer curse every time I enter the drivers cabin and hit my head on the lowered ceiling. I have accepted the flimsiness of the table design so essential to our life on the road and which is now supported by a super glued plastic hinge which breaks every 2 days and needs to be re-glued. Corinne has created organisation where there was chaos and we no longer need to interrogate each other – where is the charger, the camera, the beer, my wallet etc. And of course having a dust pan and brush means that we can keep our environment clean.
Last night as we sat in the warm night air drinking a glass of wine under the trees listening to the circados while the sun slipped away, we agreed that we were happy and at peace with our new existence. We also agreed it would never work for us. The long hours on motorways getting to our destination while fine for me are tiring and boring for Corinne. Her first response to being greeted when arriving at friends who live more than an hour away is, “flat arse” and there have been days of 5 hours or more spent in the saddle on this trip.
I am also more confident driving the vehicle in town. We did cause a traffic jam today when the sat nav sent us on a short cut to the autostrade that required passing through a tunnel enough for 1 car and only 2.0m high (we are 2.6m). With dexterity and skill I backed up inch by inch with Corinne outside directing me and facing the look of bemusement on the drivers faces each time I looked forward. The manoeuvre was finished off quite gracefully with a 5 point turn to face the van in the opposite direction and head off on our way. This confidence as it later turned out would be short lived.
Heading back out onto the autostrade the lunacy of Italian drivers hit a new low. I was in the overtaking lane passing a stream of traffic when I heard the sound of hooting. I checked my right hand mirror and saw nothing but just at that moment an idiot riding a scooter with a pillion passed between the van and the solid barrier separating the two highways. All I needed to have done was waver slightly towards the barrier and they would have been crushed. He gesticulated angrily as he passed me cursing at my audacity to overtake.
Last night after another outstanding meal of Corinne’s Camper Van haute cuisine we took a wander through the campsite into the volcano proper. Imagine yourself in a crater walking on a moonscape with the smell of sulphur filling the air. In the far off distance a noise like a fast boiling pot of water draws your attention and as you move towards it the ground under foot gets hotter and hotter.
The source of the noise was the expelling of steam under tremendous pressure rising up into the night in great volume. As it swirled above our heads it partly obscured the full moon rising over the lip of the crater and at any moment I expected to see witches emerge from this ghostly and quite eerie scene. We returned to our camp site and took a long hot shower before packing it in for the night. Tomorrow we are heading into Naples and looking forward to seeing Herculaneam.
The following day after breakfast we strolled down to the Metro and headed into Naples – just under an hours train ride. We then switched to a small suburban train that looked like it had seen better days – indeed all the way back to the war. Corinne pointed out the sign stating that young people should give their seats to the infirm and the mutilated from the ‘Guerre.’
Arriving at Herculaneum you enter a street level walkway and look down on the site which is 30 metres lower than the street. Reading the background you realise that this was the original level of the area and the difference is made up of volcanic material. Along the front of the site facing the sea there appears to be a moat however this is the original shoreline which was pushed back 4 kilometres. Entering the site you are greeted by the tragedy of what took place. There are arches cut into the rock which would have been along the shoreline probably used for storing boats. These are now filled with skeletons as people cowered from the boiling cloud descending on them.
Unlike Pompeii, Hurculaneum is easily navigable as its on a smaller scale. More of the site has been preserved and it was moving to see advertisements for wines even with the prices indicated.
Leaving Hurculaneum we headed back into Naples where we took a slow stroll along the via dei Tribunali looking for the best pizza ended up eating at Dal Presidente Pizzeria apparently visited by Bill Clinton.
Today we decided would be a cultural day and after breakfast we set off for the Museo Archeologica Nazionale. Our main objective was to see many of the treasures lifted from Pompeii and Herculaneum. On arrival we decided to have a coffee opposite the museum and sat at a table next to Kenneth Clark looking and sounding like he always has and wearing his customary hush puppies.
One of the aspects of Naples you have to just get over is the dirtiness of its streets and general chaos. It is also infested with graffiti and we noted that Banksy had given it a go resulting in the artwork being framed behind glass and a brass plaque erected. At times it’s almost as if people are intentionally making their living environment as unwelcoming as possible to keep the tourists out. In between all of this however there is the faded glory of a magnificent city with its beautiful architecture and the entire historical centre is a protected Unesco site.
There are certain must sees at the museum and one of these is the mezzanine floor with its awe inspiring mosaics from Pompeii’s Casa del Fauno. Unfortunately a large section of this was for some unexplained reason closed off from 12:30. Another masterpiece from the Casa del Fauno is La battaglia di Alessandro contro Dario ( the battle of Alexander the Great against Darius of Persia). The 20 square metre mosaic is believed to have been made by Alexadrian craftsmen working in Italy around the end of the 2nd century BC. Finally we wandered into the Gabinetto Segreto (Secret Chamber) to see the collection of erotica. It seems that sex was something quite natural to the people of Pompeii and wandering around the site there are numerous brothels with the signs outside still depicting what they are. Two of the stand out pieces are Pan enjoyiing some down time with a nanny goat and a series of nine paintings depicting erotic positions found in one of the brothels.
After the museum we took a stroll through the historical centre of the city along the via Benedetto Croce, via San Biago dei Librai and via Vicaria Vecchia. Eventually feeling like we needed a good shower and a nice glass of wine we walked up to Piazza Cavour and took line 2 back to our camp in Pozzuoli.
21/08/16 Positano, Amalfi and on to Lido di Salerno, Salerno 160kms
Making an early’ish start the following morning we were looking forward to meeting up with friends holidaying on the Amalfi coast. The last time we had been there was on a pre-season visit around March and I remembered stepping off a boat in Sorrento to a downpour. We then took the public bus to Positano but saw little of the view as most of the journey was in grey cloud. At that time trying to find anywhere open for lunch had been a challenge. This time it was to be an eventfull day but not in the way we expected.
We had got into a departure routine now and our campsite had clearly thought through how best to service Camper Vans in regard to water filling and drainage. I manoeuvred our van over a grate, opened the release valve to expel the grey water while at the same time using the provided water hose to fill the reservoir. This would replenish on-board water for shower, kitchen and toilet which after 3 days had just become depleted.
We have experienced many scents during this trip; a wood burning fire, the succulent smell of roasting meat, the heady aroma of a pine forest. But the smell that is burned into my nostrils forever is the stench of the chemical toilet. The job of cleaning out the cassette is one of the grimmest imaginable and seeing grown men walking around with either full or emptied vessels in hand is to see men with the look of the gallows. Still, the knowledge that you are now commanding a vehicle that will see you through whatever the road (or your partner) might dole out for you is comforting and liberating at the same time.
The first thing to alter our mellow state of mind was the return of the dreaded collapsing table. In slow moving traffic I asked Corinne to get some sweets from the back and unfortunately she used the super glued table to steady herself – which of course immediately crashed to the floor. Thereupon it started sliding across the floor made worse by the winding route. At the first opportunity I stopped and placed the entire contraption on our bed with its one leg pointing up triumphantly like a finger – a well known Italian gesture. Shortly after, having to break a little too suddenly, it came sliding off the bed and again crashed to the floor. I responded in Anglo Saxon. It would have to remain there.
Of course we knew that heading to the Amalfi was probably not the greatest of ideas in August on a Sunday as mentioned before. But hey, how difficult could it be. In comparison to some of the monster vans we had parked alongside in the various sites, ours felt bijou. We were soon to find out.
Our first problem approaching Positano was that there was no parking nor anywhere to stop. This created a problem as our friends had walked up to the main road from their hotel and were waiting for us. The traffic was crazy. As we were speaking to them inching along trying to establish where they were, we passed them and heard their shout. But we were unable to stop unless we were prepared to face the wrath of Italian motorists, scooter riders and bikers who at the best of times are bloody angry. So we drove on by winding our way along the cliff side road and manoeuvring around the tight bends.
After awhile I was able to find a place to turn the camper van around causing much tutt-tutting and shaking of heads and headed back along the route I had driven to where we had last seen them. This time I stopped in a small taxi rank and they climbed on board. But I wasn’t sure what we would do next. Drive the 75kms back to the campsite? After a few minutes I found a spot at the end of a line of parked cars and although there was a sign indicating a car being towed away I reasonably thought, Italy, who cares I should be fine. I was to be correct on the last point.
Walking back into Positano we admired the postcard views and yachts in the bay and ended up at our friends favourite restaurant, il Fornillo on Via Pasitea. Corinne mentioned afterwards that she wasn’t sure whether our young waiter had a nervous winking twitch or quite fancied her. Of course it had to be the latter. We had an excellent seafood lunch overlooking the bay and needing a walk, they joined us for the stiff climb back up to the main road.
There were 3 things on my mind as we walked back to the van. Would it be there, how was I to turn it around again as it was now pointed in the wrong direction and had I been fined and if so how much. To the first question indeed it was, the second proved relatively straight forward and to the final question – yes €127. So much for Italians being laid back about parking offences. Still while annoying and a considerable amount, we had enjoyed a wonderful day so far and I was not prepared to have anything spoil it. We had the Amalfi ahead of us and one of the worlds finest drives to add to our experiences. Or so I thought.
Leaving Positano we worked our way along the narrow winding coast road every turn presenting a breathtaking view. I was however aware that the road was becoming more narrow and on certain bends our Camper Van took up most of the tarmac. Drivers behind me were prepared to take suicidal risks to get past overtaking on blind bends. Still we were quite relaxed – a state of being that would be short lived.
Coming through a torturous series of bends I was suddenly greeted head on by the Amalfi bus coming in the opposite direction. There was no way to get through and he simply gestured to me to reverse. To make his point he glanced meaningfully at his watch with an exasperated shrug. There was nothing to do but for the entire line of cars behind me to find a way of reversing backwards while the bus hooted impatiently. The Camper Van was inches from the low wall separating us from the cliff face and I was unable to see out the back having only the side mirrors as a guide. After 15 minutes of painstaking manoeuvring eventually the bus was able to get through, the driver giving me a dirty look as he passed.
By this stage the calm I had felt had dissipated and I saw each new bend as a major threat. I worried about whether we would ever get off this blasted mountain. The indicator on the sat nav seemed permanently stuck on 32 kms to destination no matter how much time passed. The road had narrowed to the extent that only one vehicle could pass at a time and it took all of my driving abilities and concentration to negotiate the ever tighter turns.
Ahead of us was a tunnel. I went through fine but had to execute a tight right hand turn coming out. At that point I heard a sickening sound, a little like running over a plastic bollard. Oh how I wished that had been the cause but I knew I had caught the right hand side of the van and damaged it, probably around the rear wheel arch. I decided not to stop and check but rather completed the journey to Salerno. Inspecting the damage at our campsite it was confirmed. I was dreading reading the insurance contract which I had signed many months previously and could not remember which of the many options I had selected. This will no doubt lighten our bank balance further. It did…
So here is what I have learned about this experience. If you are going to drive Amalfi don’t choose the last week of Italian holidays to do it. If you decide to go anyway, then don’t choose a Sunday when everyone not on holiday is on the Amalfi. And if you ignore this advice and do it anyway, then don’t do it in a camper van unless you want to be lynched by every Italian biker pretending to be Valentino Rossi. Finally if you park illegally expect a €127 fine.
21/08/16 Lido di Salerno, Salerno, Campania
Our approach to our new campsite had not been promising. Driving along the SP175 beach road there seemed to be litter everywhere with cheap pizzerias lining the road and a beach that was uninviting.
Unaware at the time, Corinne was keeping up a dialogue with our friends from Positano who justifiably were concerned about our little adventure and whether there would be any likelihood of seeing us again. This is what she wrote:
“Lovely to see u n Suzy. We having apples n wine for dins. What a day. Broke bloody table, got parking fine, M effing n blinding at agressive drivers, then scraped side of van as we turned out of tunnel, then re and re routed paying toll twice, then miles of very disgusting downmarket filthy beaches and Peckham (apologies Peckham – my ed) tattood type bars approaching our camp. Sunken hearts. But now here, back to back tents n vans noisy tv, smokers, kids on bikes,very sunburnt people BUT on the beach. The sea is 30 steps from here. Clean. Beach. Haven’t seen showers yet. It’s only halfway through our trip but we’ve drawn big black line under ever having this kind of holiday again.”
Turning into the Lido do Salerno we were parked next to the beach under cover and the facilities were pristine. Most importantly so was the beach with perfect almost white sand and a wonderful stretch of water across the bay to the Amalfi coastline. After our hectic day we gratefully collapsed on the beach and watched the sun set over the Amalfi mountains.
We were quite clearly the only English people there and Corinne’s idea of researching where the Italians go for their holidays has brought up interesting results. The campsite seems to have a regular and friendly clientele mostly middle class Italians from the local area out to have their time in the sun. These are people who enjoy what life provides. The women are buxom and lavascious and would sit comfortably in a Lucien Freud painting. They are the mamas and dote on their children stroking their well-fed bellies lovingly. Their bodies are bronzed to a point which would horrify any skin cancer specialist. With the sliding door open we can look out at the Mediterranean and a few short steps is all it takes to be on the beach. We decided to stay a second day. The only thing to mar our pleasure is the beach disco belting out the equivalent of Italian Macarena non stop. Still, easy enough to move to a quieter section.
An interesting social observation we have made is that without exception within the southern region of Italy, the men do the washing up after dinner. Corinne remarked she thought it might be a working class phenomenon commenting purely from a societal perspective. On this basis I must therefore have working class roots.
The following day I am having difficulty explaining to Corinne that we are nearly 1000 kms from Nice and still need to get back there by the 28th in 6 days time. I have figured that we can get 200 kms done in a day comfortably especially if using the motorway. This gives ample time for stops and arriving at our destination with time to enjoy our surroundings. I have proposed doing a big day tomorrow to get a chunk of the journey done. She does not want to leave and has left it up to me to decide what to do which is always a bad sign. Whatever I choose to do will be the wrong option.
However I have been given some clues. She’s dissapointed about leaving the sea being a girl who grew up in Cape Town on a beach with a surfboard. She also mentioned she wouldn’t mind being near a lake. Looking at the map Lago di Bracciano seemed to stand out as an ideal objective being just outside Rome so stisfying the mileage factor. From the pictures it looks stunning. This will be our next stop.
Before leaving I have to confront the €127 fine we received in Positano. Left to its own devices it will only escalate and the thought of an Italian jail is unappealing. I approached Pasquale (another one) who runs Lido do Salerno who went through it in detail. Finally he says triumphantly, you have received a fine of €88 for illegal parking and the balance seems to be something related to the fact that it was a camper van. Happily if you pay it in 5 days there is a 30% discount. Excellent with an offer like that I shall take two. Fair cop I say what do I do. It turned out that the best way to settle these things is to pay at a Postiale (Post Office). We headed into Salerno and after a couple of attempts at illegal parking we eventually found a spot.
The Postiale as expected was buzzing with community life and we joined the throngs of people packing the entrance. A huge wheezing man with rivulets of sweat running down his face guarded the queue number generating machine. He barked something at us we didn’t understand. We showed him the fine, he muttered under his breath and the machine spewed a number for the appropriate queue related to our transgression. He also handed us a form to be completed but after 10 minutes with Google translate we were none the wiser. At this point Corinne boldly marched to the heaving counter and fluttered her brown eyes at Armando who duly saw her next.
Armando tried his best to explain what each box meant – in Italian, all the while pointing meaningfully at the boxes with his pen. Looking at him blankly he eventually called the boss man who efficiently completed the entire form in a few minutes. He then handed us back to Armando who requested official identification, completed the transaction and was glad to see the back of us. Feeling much lighter of pocket but relieved to get out of there, we walked back to the camper van hoping we had not sustained another fine – we hadn’t.
23/08/16 Camping Internazionale, Lago di Bracciano 270 kms
We have figured out how to play podcasts through the camper van’s stereo and this has made the long journey on the autostrade North more bearable. Corinne has downloaded several episodes of This American Life and we are listening to a documentary about the migrants stuck in Greece and attempts by the government and volunteers to make their lives more bearable.
Turning into our campsite after a long 5 hour journey our spirits were immediately lifted. We are parked right next to the beautiful lake Lago di Bracciano under a shady spot. The lake is volcanic and situated 32 kms north west of Rome and serves as a drinking water reservoir. Hence it is strictly controlled, no power boats are allowed and it is one of the cleanest lakes in Italy. Corinne is happy she does not want to leave. The rustle of the wind through the trees is wonderful and swimming in the lake is beautifully refreshing. Corinne makes dinner and soon after we are asleep.
In the early hours of the morning I feel the camper van shaking violently. I mean really shaking. I can still hear the wind and assume it’s simply become stronger. No hang on that is weird – it really got hold of the van then and I felt the van bounce on its wheels. All is quiet and I drifted off to sleep. It was only in the morning after receiving a text from Corinne’s sister in Australia that we realise there had been an earthquake in the region of Purugia 58 miles from where we were. Tragically many people lost their lives and several towns were reduced to rubble.
The following morning is a beautiful day spent swimming in the lake, reading and writing. Corinne does not want to leave however we are still 670 kms from Nice. We have decided to do another big day tomorrow. Drive through Tuscanny stopping for lunch in Siena. Then via Florence and Lucca to La Spezia – a total journey of 426 kms. This means that we will be able to spend the last few days of the holiday on the Italian Riviera and may get a chance to see Cinque Terra.
That evening we took a drive into Trevignano, one of the small villages that line the lake. One of our fellow campers had recommended Ristorintino Rustico and I thought Corinne deserved a break from camper cooking even if it meant having to tolerate restaurant food. The stroll along the lake was nothing short of romantic with a setting sun as the backdrop and shimmering blue water. Unfortunately the restaurant although in this most wonderful of settings fell far short of expectations.
The transient nature of camping
An element of this nomadic lifestyle we’ve chosen for ourselves that I have struggled with is its transience. When we arrived at our lake we spent 20 minutes or so manoeuvring our camper van for the optimal lake view. We were surrounded by campers of different nationalities who, watching the proceedings offered advice. Much of their advice centred on (a) making sure we did not obstruct the paths to the lake and (b), their own carefully thought out view of the lake. Not wishing to cause any offence we all settled on an ideal position for our camper van and everyone was happy.
The two main groups offering advice were an Italian actor who lived in Rome, probably divorced and with his young teenage daughter and a French gay couple from Le Mans. Once the dust had settled there ensued spirited debates about life in Rome, London, France, Brexit and many other topics of a similar nature. We felt comfortable with each other laughed and joked and greeted one another bleary eyed in the morning.
And then one by one they all drifted off until on the morning of our departure, we were the only ones left. The painstaking manoeuvring past various tents inching along to avoid obstructing someone’s view would today have been completely unnecessary. The debates we had held about the angle of our door and whether it looked onto someone else’s ‘patio’ were today superfluous. There was nobody there. I could have driven to within 1 foot of the lake flung open doors and windows and run around starkers. Nobody would have complained. And those conversations were just whispers in the rustling of the trees. Air expended – gone forever.
25/08/16 Campeggio Maralunga, Lerici (La Spezia) 465 kms
Today was a big drive – we had to make up some distance back towards Nice and I was keen to sample the Italian Riviera as part of our final farewell to Italy. Corinne took the strain with various issues coming to the fore including swollen feet, sore back, flat arse etc. But turning off the autostrade into Lerici we were greeted with stunningly beautiful views at each turn making the journey worthwhile.
We had found this particular location on the recommendation of another campsite we had tried to book but which was full. When I called they informed me that they do not take bookings on the phone, yes they had space for one camper but it may be gone when we arrive. Great! Considering the journey we had ahead of us which would be a full day of driving, chances were we would not get in. But fortune shined on us and we were offered 2 choices. We are now parked at the highest point of a terraced campsite under shady olive trees. The sparkling blue Mediterranean is just below us and we are very happy.
We decided to take a walk into the village which was quite strenuous, calf building stuff. It’s really charming and best described by the New York Times thus:
“How is it that Lerici, an undeniably beautiful seaside town just minutes from the Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera, has largely evaded the radar of foreign tourists?
On a recent sunny spring afternoon, Riccardo Morlini, owner of Gelateria Arcobaleno, a tiny gelato shop on Lerici’s main piazza, offered his explanation: marketing. “The Cinque Terre has been sold touristically everywhere for a long time,” he said. “People know Cinque Terre all over the world. But Lerici, it’s not so known.
Not so known outside Italy, that is. Lerici is a jumble of pastel buildings that jockey for attention with its beaches, crescent-shaped coves and rocky cliffs that melt into the sparkling sea. And in July and August, the town is bustling, the beaches filled with local residents, vacationing families from northern Italy and a loyal crowd of in-the-know Milanese.
Around town, young couples flirt at waterfront cafes, children kick soccer balls beneath palm trees, and groups of white-haired men stroll along the beachfront promenade. Very few are speaking English. In Lerici, unlike many other Riviera towns, the lingua franca is still poetic Italian.”
We enjoyed drinks on the promenade overlooking the harbour and watched the passing parade. Then we did some shopping for that night’s meal and tackled the stiff climb back to our camp site. Corinne prepared a delicious pasta bolognese and we ate under the stars with a warm wind blowing through the leaves of the olive trees above us.
The following day we enjoyed a slow lazy swim and planned what would now be the final days of our Italian road trip. An interesting aspect of this campsite is the absence of children. It is most definitely an adults (younger camping in tents older people in camper vans) venue no doubt with its location on the Riveria. Also the women do the washing up so it’s clearly a more upscale place on that point alone and Corinne’s theory appears to be holding out.
Should you do this camper van thing?
Well it may surprise you to know that I don’t feel done with it yet despite the travails. Ok I will concede on a few points: (1) hiring one is hellishly expensive and we could have done this more economically I think by hiring a car and staying in B&Bs along the route. That said, camp sites charge between €20 and €30 per night in peak season which I suspect is far less than the alternative. (2) This is not suitable for someone who suffers from ‘flat arse’ syndrome. Corinne is an uncomfortable passenger and the option of her lying in bed as I drive is not safe. That said, there was a lot of ground we wanted to cover which In itself was a mistake. Doing this again, I would choose a smallish region and keep the travelling to the minimum. Book into campsites for several days and explore the area. Which brings me to the next point – (3) unless you have a passenger who is infatuated with bowel movements and has to know that a surgically clean toilet is an arms length away, you do not need the whole bathroom thing. We have been limited in what we could do due to the size of our vehicle. This has meant we have needed to ensure wherever we stayed had easy access to public transport. I would prefer the Volkswagen Camper style approach without toilet and shower and stay in 5 star campsites with 5 star facilities. There is not much of a difference in price.
I have loved the outdoor life. I wish we had brought along a small barbecue as that would have just added to the experience. Waking up near the water each day with the sun and dappled shade and smell of fresh coffee brewing is pretty damn special. And being right next to the sea is fantastic. In fact as I type these words at 16:55 I am looking out at the blue Med through our olive trees and about to take a swim again. Enough said…
27/08/16 Capo Mimosa, Cervo, 237 kms
There is definitely now an air of reaching the end of our our journey. In 2 days time we fly back to London and all we will have then are our photographs, memories and this diary account to keep our road trip alive. We are just over 300kms from Nice and we have decided to find our final campsite somewhere along the Côte d’Azur. We did some research and settled on Capo Mimosa due to good reviews and proximity to the sea.
After an an uneventful drive of around 4 hours with a few stops, we arrived at our new campsite at Capo Mimosa close to Marina do Andora. In terms of position this is the best site so far. The camper van is parked overlooking the ocean with a 20 metre drop to the waves crashing on the rocks below. The stifling heat is offset with a cool sea breeze blowing through the Camper Van. There is a beach 2 minutes walk – how bloody perfect. We will stay 2 nights and then Monday we drive back to Nice and hand back the camper van and return to the UK.
After another perfect meal in our Camper Van, my favourite spag bol, we drank a fine Bolero and watched the light slip away. We are listening to our favourite artist Cesaria Evora on Spotify. I suspect tomorrow will be a lazy day but we will go into the town in the evening and risk restaurant food again.
Waking up the following morning to a cloudless sky and perfectly calm sea, I read the sad report of a British couple and the son of friends of theirs killed in the earthquake. Peter Conradi, Foreign Editor of The Times gives a personal account of his friends Will and Maria who had painstakingly restored an old farmhouse in Sommati, close to Amatrice, the town hardest hit by the tremor. It had been a dream for them taking them back to Maria’s father’s roots and they had now reached a stage when they could enjoy it. So sad that lives that were so full and happy can be cut short so unexpectedly.
The rest of the day has been spent just below where our Camper Van is parked. We discovered a stairway that leads down to a smooth rocky outcrop from which we can launch ourselves into the beautiful bottle green water. Not much else to say really.
For dinner we drove into Cervo a small medieval town at the top of a hill where we had intended to have dinner. However it soon became apparent that the camper van was going to again cause problems for other vehicles as the road started to narrow. Having Amalfi as my hard won experience, I executed a U turn at the first opportunity and we headed further down the coast to Diano Marina. At first it seemed to be an unremarkable town but because Corinne needed cigarettes and these are strictly controlled, we had to wander off the beaten track. This brought us to the back streets and a very charming pedestrianised area teeming with restaurants and an open air market. We finally settled on Pizza for me and a burger for Corinne at Taverna Zero. My Pizza was great.
29/08/16 departure back to Nice
Our day of departure back to London has arrived and waking up this morning there was an air in the campsite of the end of holidays. Several Camper Vans made an early start leaving gaping holes where previously the owners looked like they had dug in for the long haul. Although we had thought of having a final swim, we have moved into clean-up mode and are thinking to take a slow ride along the coast to Nice – about 2 hours away. Not looking forward to the handover of the battle scared camper van with its Amalfi wound but we shall see how things go.
Well the table damage didn’t raise an eyebrow clearly just a plastic hinge so not much in it. The damage to the rear wheel arch however is a different matter. They will take it to the repair shop and advise. And so ends our camping van holiday and Italian road trip. We have thoroughly cleaned the interior of the van to avoid the €100 cleaning charge, keys handed over and we are off to Nice airport.
Being cooped up in a camper van for 2 weeks held some trepidation for both of us before the start of this trip. Would we get irritated with each other? Would we argue incessantly? Would we reveal some secret hygiene (or lack of) habit that had been successfully concealed for 36 years? Would one of us return to London mid-way to commence immediate divorce proceedings?
Well I would put it quite simply. Yes there were one or two arguments, broken iPhone is testimony to that (can’t remember what it was about). But if I am to think of one thing that changed it would be that we came to trust each other. Here we were in unfamiliar terrain making it up as we went along and judgement was called for. I came to respect Corinne’s intuition, her calm assessment of situations and her warnings; “too close to the side.” “Turn left, no left!” And her body language. Drawing her legs close into her body into a foetal position meant we were about to hit the pavement on her side. Or, I was looking right rather than left coming into a roundabout. Something I did not need to learn about was her creative cooking. Making sumptuous meals in our camper van were par for the course. Corinne’s camper van cuisine will always be remembered.
Would we do it again? Sure – provided I had my motorcycle or a scooter to zip into town, plenty of time and a smaller sized vehicle we could park in the city centre. Of course what would make it complete would be grand-children but not suggesting anything here. I’m still trapped in my 70’s rock era with the sound of Pink Floyd and Deep Purple playing in my ears.